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Dennis Lotis obituary

Dennis Lotis, who has died aged 97, built his career during a decade when popular culture turned upside down. In 1957 he was voted the UK’s top male singer in a Melody Maker poll for his interpretations of songs such as Nevertheless, Such a Night and Flamingo. Yet his crooning style, thanks to rock’n’roll, was fated to go the way of big band swing.

Photograph: V&A Images/Getty Images

Photograph: V&A Images/Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian

Lotis had arrived from his native South Africa in austerity London in late 1950, armed with a letter of introduction from the Anglo-American saxophonist Don Barrigo, which he presented to the bandleader Ted Heath. Palais de dance and decaying music halls were where young people – the term “teenagers” lay in the future – found live music, and in that world of dance bands Heath reigned almost supreme.

Heath was initially more impressed with Lotis’s personality than his singing, but he took him on. Thus Lotis completed the triumvirate of vocalists – with Dickie Valentine and Lita Roza – who fronted the Heath band in the early 1950s. “It was almost a couple of years before he made appreciable headway with the fans,” Heath wrote later, “but I persevered with him until he justified my faith.” 

Lotis singing at a Johannesburg nightclub in 1954, shortly before he left South Africa for the UK. Photograph: Haywood Magee/Getty Images
Lotis singing at a Johannesburg nightclub in 1954, shortly before he left South Africa for the UK. Photograph: Haywood Magee/Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian

Work permit and union restrictions effectively prevented US performers from touring the UK. Thus was an odd, parasitical culture generated, where the excitement of Americana was confined to disc and celluloid while British entertainers played the halls. Lotis’s work might be compared, or indeed stand comparison to, that of Mel Tormé, but Lotis was not Mel Tormé.

Within the British market it was Valentine – runner-up in the Melody Maker poll – who had the hits. Lotis had come into his own in the band when Valentine quit, according to Heath. “Within a few months he had a thriving fanclub and was mobbed by the girls wherever he went.” The work included the bandleader’s renowned Sunday night London Palladium concerts. 

In the mid-50s Lotis quit as a resident singer with Heath. As a solo performer, he was “typical of the new spellbinders” according to a Manchester Guardian reviewer, “vigorous and emotional rather than … romantic and langorous”.

In 1956 he made his first movie appearance, as a singer, in The Extra Day. His other films included The City of the Dead and Sword of Sherwood Forest (both 1960) and What Every Woman Wants and She’ll Have To Go (both 1962).

In 1957 he played his first Royal Variety Show, as did the first British rock ‘n’ roll star, Tommy Steele. Rock was rising, but in a world of grown-up power, Lotis’s career flourished and included appearances on the BBC’s first attempt at a pop show, Six-Five Special and, in 1958, on the first edition of the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show.

The following year came a curious, albeit courageous dive into the theatrical new wave. This was John Osborne’s bungled assault on 50s Britain, a “musical-comedy of manners”, The World of Paul Slickey, at the Palace theatre, London. Described by one reviewer as an “extraordinarily dull world” it featured Lotis as Jack Oakham, AKA Paul Slickey, a sleazy gossip columnist – complete with flash overcoat, trilby and cigarette holder – on a newspaper called the Daily Racket. On the first night of its six-week run Lotis and the cast had the distinction of being booed by, among others, Noël Coward and John Gielgud. The playwright was subsequently chased down the road by other theatregoers.

Lotis, the elder of two brothers, was born in Johannesburg to an English mother and a Greek father who was a restaurateur. Aged nine, Dennis won a talent contest that led to singing work, including radio. Quitting school at 15, he became a bus conductor and an electrical apprentice before turning to full-time professional singing in his later teens. A radio series, record deals and a marriage to a fellow singer, Rena Mackie, followed. Then, in 1950, he took tourist class on the Bloemfontein Castle ship to Southampton, with £25 in his wallet. 

Lotis performing in 2005; he continued singing into his 80s. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy
Lotis performing in 2005; he continued singing into his 80s. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy© Provided by The Guardian

After his successes in the 50s, Lotis’s career collided with the musical revolutions of the 60s, and his brand of restrained, middle-of-the-road entertainment slipped from fashion. Nonetheless, he continued to make a good living. When the BBC first demonstrated colour TV in 1961, Lotis appeared, thanks to primitive technology, complete with a purple face; when, later in that decade, John Neville directed a modern dress Measure for Measure in Newcastle, Lotis was there playing Lucio. In the 70s he opened an antiques shop in Tring, Hertfordshire. Lotis moved to Norfolk in the 80s, living in the villages of Field Dalling and then Stiffkey, and continued to perform regularly to enthusiastic audiences well into the 21st century.

Rena, with whom he had three sons, Damon, Kim and Gareth, died in 1997. He is survived by his second wife, Bronwen, who was Rena’s niece.

• Denis Lotis, singer and actor, born 8 March 1925: died 8 February 2023 

 Reference: The Guardian: Story by Nigel Fountain •  

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